Tag Archives: Laurel Plaza

“Top of the World, Ma!”

Laurel Plaza shopping center, at the intersection of Routes 197 and 198, has always had something unique to Laurel at any given time. Zayre (and later, Ames) was the anchoring department store on one end, and Grand Union (and later, Basics) was the grocery store on the other—a space that would later become the longtime home to Village Thrift Store. But, of course, Laurel Plaza was also home to the greatest sporting goods store of all time, Bob Windsor’s All Pro Sports—owned by former San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots star, Bob Windsor.

IMG_9719

© Lost Laurel collection

But Laurel Plaza was also where the Laurel Boys & Girls Club-sponsored traveling carnivals set up when I was a kid; and every year around this time, I think back to them fondly.

IMG_4145

Laurel Plaza carnival, May 1987. (Photo © Richard Friend)

Operated by Winchester Amusement Company, you didn’t have to be a certified safety inspector to tell that the rides weren’t exactly in optimal condition. Disney World, this most certainly wasn’t. And you could also count on some kind of trouble brewing at some point during the two-week run—usually a drunken scuffle or three after an argument over the (very-possibly-rigged) games of chance.

But the rides were true carnival classics: the Scrambler, the Trabant, and the Scat (among others) were there year after year. The crown jewel, however—the one that literally first caught your eye and immediately registered “carnival”—was the Ferris Wheel.

And Winchester Amusement Company had one of the biggest Ferris Wheels—a 50-footer. Anyone approaching Laurel Plaza simply couldn’t miss it.

Thirty years ago this week, (on May 14th, 1987, to be exact) I got to experience that 50-foot Ferris Wheel from a very unique perspective:

I got stuck at the top, and had to climb down via the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department’s 100-foot ladder truck.

I literally remember it like it was yesterday, but my memory is surely aided by these photos that I took the day after the fateful ride.

IMG_4157

The infamous Ferris Wheel at Laurel Plaza, the day after the incident. (Photo © Richard Friend)

I’ve never been a particular fan of Ferris Wheels, mind you; I’m more of a roller coaster guy. But I’d had it in my mind to try out every ride the carnival had to offer. Ferris Wheels always struck me as incredibly boring; but as luck would have it, this one quickly turned into what was arguably the most exciting ride in the history of the Laurel carnival.

It was around 8PM that night when I boarded the Ferris Wheel—the ride only about three quarters full with nine people, total. It made exactly one full rotation, and as I passed the motor at the base of the ride, I flinched as a large cable literally snapped off the drive wheel system. Seconds later, as my car ascended to the top, the entire Ferris Wheel shimmied side to side briefly—that’s when everyone realized that something had gone wrong. For a split second, I thought it was going to collapse. That, or we were literally going to start rolling down Route 198.

IMG_4158

The broken cable the day after the incident. Photo © Richard Friend

Instead, we heard what sounded like a generator cutting off, and the wheel simply ground to a stop—with my car literally stuck at the very top.

I remember seeing the Ferris Wheel operator frantically trying to figure out what to do; and when his best option was evidently to try to manually rotate the giant wheel—with his bare hands—I knew this was serious.

With curious onlookers beginning to congregate, carnival employees shouted up to us that they would have us down safely soon; but at least an hour went by before we finally saw salvation…in the form of fire trucks.

A pair of firefighters climbed the 100-foot ladder to my car, and spent a few moments securing the car to their ladder. I was told to hold onto the back of the car I was sitting in, because the second I started moving, it would swing forward. Sure enough, I found myself looking straight down at the asphalt parking lot for a few unnerving seconds. But I was safely harnessed to the firefighter, who assured me that if I fell, he would fall, too—and that he wasn’t planning to fall.

car9-crop.jpg

The safety bar on Car #9, still open the day after I’d climbed out from the top of the Ferris Wheel. (Photo © Richard Friend)

He instructed me to carefully step out of the car, and to throw my legs over the top of the Ferris Wheel, one at a time. Literally, over the top of the Ferris Wheel, and onto the ladder. I did that, and we slowly descended together. As we did, I confided to him, “this is a lot more fun than the Ferris Wheel.”

I’d just gotten safely to the ground when a man whom I assume was the owner/manager of the carnival approached me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he looked exactly like the guy from “The Blues Brothers” who owned Bob’s Country Bunker.

BluesBrothers_Bob

Bob, owner of Bob’s Country Bunker. (“The Blues Brothers,” 1980).

He was smiling jovially as he handed me a small cup of Pepsi. “Are ‘ya thirsty? Here, have a soda!” And then he handed me the real reward for my experience: a pair of complimentary ticket books. They included 12 tickets for free rides. I still have the covers in my collection:

IMG_9717IMG_9718

I went straight home after that, and found my mom furious that I was over an hour and a half late. Not only that, she didn’t believe my story of being stuck at the top of the Ferris Wheel—even when I showed her the ticket books I’d received. It actually wasn’t until the following Thursday, when the Laurel Leader reported the incident, that she realized I’d been telling the truth!

leader-clipping-may14-1987

To my knowledge, no charges or lawsuits were ever filed, as no one was injured. I went back to the carnival in the days afterward and used my free tickets—even riding the Ferris Wheel again once it was operational. Although, that was the last Ferris Wheel ride I’ve ever taken.

I’ve tried to find out whatever became of the Winchester Amusement Company, which (not surprisingly) seems to be out of business. I’d heard that the Laurel Boys & Girls Club, concerned with their quality control, eventually replaced them with another carnival operator in the 1990s. And in 1998, there was an incident in Hagerstown where a teenager was seriously injured after being ejected from one of the rides operated by Winchester Amusement. I doubt there were any free ticket books and Pepsis after that one, and it may very well have spelled the end for the longtime carnies.

Nevertheless, I’ll always have the memory of climbing down from the top of that Ferris Wheel at the carnival in Laurel Plaza—which may as well have been the top of the world. It’s just hard to believe that it’s been 30 years. Driving past the shopping center today, the parking lot is still teeming with activity; but nothing like the night of May 14, 1987.

Tagged , , ,

Meeting Bob Windsor… Again!

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of learning something new on my own Lost Laurel Facebook page. Reader John Mewshaw posted a link to a sports memorabilia event being held at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Listed there, at the very bottom of the page (by Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods—he of the famous “Ickey Shuffle”) was none other than Bob Windsor—the former NFL tight end who owned the wonderful Bob Windsor’s All-Pro Sports at Laurel Plaza Shopping Center throughout the 1970s and 80s. Bob was going to be there signing autographs the very next morning!

CSA Chantilly Show, Bob Windsor

It just so happens that today, I live only a few miles from the Dulles Expo Center; and I hadn’t seen Bob Windsor since I was a kid in his store nearly 30 years ago—when I would look forward to getting an autographed 8″ x 10″ with every purchase.

Bob Windsor 1980s autographed photo

A well-worn memento from the past, circa 1983

I made the short drive to Chantilly on Saturday morning, April 5th, and found the place packed just as it opened. Even though I knew where Bob’s table would be located, he was easy to spot, chatting with an old-timer from the area. I waited patiently behind the older gentleman, and when it was my turn, I said, (with a straight face) “Hi Bob. I’ve had this coupon for like 30 years, and there doesn’t seem to be an expiration date on it…”

I watched the confusion on his face turn to laughter when I revealed the “coupon” to be an enlarged print of one of his 1980s sneaker trade-in ads. “HOLY COW,” he exclaimed. “I haven’t seen one of those since… I don’t know when!”

Bob Windsor & Richard Friend, 4/5/14

I then revealed what I’d really come to do. I introduced myself, explaining that I’d grown up at Steward Manor Apartments just across the street from his store, and that my friends and I used to practically live there. Now a graphic designer, I’d actually created a book about Laurel’s past businesses—Lost Laurel. I leafed through the book to the 1980s section, and watched Bob’s face light up even more when he spotted pages 158–159:

Lost Laurel book: Bob Windsor

I told him that I wanted to give him the book (and some extra copies for his family) and finally say thank you for the countless good memories he and his store provided, and for all he’s done for Laurel, Maryland through the years. I had the chance to chat with him for a few moments, and he explained the history behind that memorable photo of him:

“We were playing the Giants—that was actually in Yankee Stadium. I had just caught that pass, (from quarterback Jim Plunkett) and was only on my feet for about a second and a half… and then got hit and flipped upside down by a linebacker and a defensive back!”

When I asked if he could remember who the linebacker and defensive back were, Bob laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t want to remember!”

We shook hands again, and Bob asked if I was a Redskins fan. Without getting into my long-winded NFL fan history, (which included a brutal 27 years, rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles throughout some of their lowliest seasons) I simply said yes—I’m finally trying to cheer for my own home team these days. With that, Bob reached into a folder and handed me a signed Sonny Jurgensen photo. (!!!) He then pointed to the sneaker trade-in ad I’d brought, and in a moment that transported me straight back to 1983, he asked, “Want me to sign that for you?”

Yes, indeed I did. 🙂

Bob Windsor's ad, 1986

Tagged , , , , , ,

Hobby House

Perhaps more than any store, restaurant, or other business in Laurel’s retail past, the one place that I’ve consistently heard the most about is a little shop that opened in (and along with) Laurel Plaza Shopping Center in October 1965. It was at least a decade before pinball and video game arcades became the rage; and by all accounts, Hobby House may have topped them all in terms of sheer awesomeness.

Throughout the summer of ’65, Hobby House advertised heavily in the Laurel News Leader—bold, exciting ads that showcased the store’s massive tabletop slot car racing tracks. As if that wasn’t enough to draw you in, they also carried a full line of all things hobby: coins, stamps, model airplanes, model ships, model trains, and more. It was essentially Laurel’s precursor to HobbyWorks—which, coincidentally, remains open in Laurel Shopping Center to this day.

While Hobby House was part of the new Laurel Plaza Shopping Center, it wasn’t actually a brand new store. It had previously been located at 342 Main Street—current location of the Laurel Board of Trade—for five years. The Main Street location, however, didn’t have the slot car racing tracks; and its new store was the first of its kind in the Laurel area. In fact, owner Bill Bromley proclaimed his three new championship-approved tabletop tracks “the finest facilities available in the state”.

The new store also boasted some impressive hours for its era, open daily from 10AM to 11PM, and noon to 11PM on Sundays. Customers were encouraged to bring their own slot cars to race, and there were plenty available to buy or rent for a nominal fee.

I’ve also heard nothing but great things about the store’s staff, including owner Bill Bromley, and his brother, Dick—who served as assistant manager. I was glad to unearth a couple of photos of these gentlemen from September 1965 issues of the News Leader as well:

 

And a May 1966 full page ad captured a number of Laurel Plaza store entrances, including Hobby House.

Unfortunately for me, Hobby House had apparently already closed by the time my family arrived at Steward Manor in the late 70s, and I never did get to experience it. (You don’t have to pity me too much—I did get to surf the wave of awesomeness that was Time-Out and Showbiz Pizza Place in their respective heydays).

But I wanted to share a wonderful Hobby House recollection from our good friend John Floyd II—a lifelong train buff who remembers a special day and the equally special customer service that went along with it:

Hobby House was wicked! Those large racing tracks were cool and it was always fun to see them in action, but electric model trains were my thing and Hobby House had plenty of them in the new “N scale” whose compact size appealed to me. Mr Dick Bromley was either owner or manager of HH and he was ever so accommodating. In 1968, the ill-fated Penn Central merger between Pennsylvania RR and New York Central System endeared me to that poorly-conceived, behemoth railway company, not to mention being amongst a thousand spectators who gathered at Odenton to see the solemn and dignified funeral train PC ran for RFK in June of ’68. So, for my 11th birthday that year, Mum took me to Hobby House to select a train set. Alas, there were none to be had in Penn Central colours, but Mr Bromley soon sorted that out by combining an individual locomotive, passenger cars, freight cars, and a caboose into a splendid custom Penn Central train set!

Eventually, he would be involved with the operation of Laurel Shopping Center and Laurel Centre Mall (Rich, I’ve got one of his business cards for you!) as well as the Chamber of Commerce. I believe one of Laurel’s Fourth of July Parade trophy awards is also named in Mr Bromley’s honour. When Hobby House closed (late ’70s or early ’80s?), it left a void not filled until Hobby Works (for general hobby interests) and Peach Creek Shops (for hard-core railway modellers) came along in the 1990s.

John did indeed have a business card for me, from Dick Bromley’s term as Promotion Director at Laurel Centre—complete with its original logo before the ill-advised April 1998 “Laurel Mall” rebrand!

I’m looking forward to digging further into the 1970s archives, to hopefully determine when Hobby House closed and for what reasons; and for more information about the Bromley brothers. But in the meantime, I’ll just have to imagine what it must’ve been like, racing slot cars against Laurel’s fast and furious. I have to believe that I’d be the only one who’d show up with a custom Bob’s Cab racer, though.

Get ready to pay the meter, kids. Next stop, Hobby House.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Laurel Plaza: Equitable Trust Bank

Question: “What was originally in the building that currently houses Carol’s Western Wear?”
Answer: A lot of money.

According to this article in the June 19, 1966 Baltimore Sun, it was Equitable Trust Bank.

Photo (bottom): carolswesternwear.com
Tagged , , , ,

Bob Windsor’s All-Pro Sports

It hasn’t been much to look at over the past 20 years or so, but in the early 1980s, this little store on the west corner of Laurel Plaza was something special. Bob Windsor’s All-Pro Sports was ahead of its time.

Bob Windsor was an NFL tight end, and by most accounts, a pretty good one at that. He was the second-round draft choice for the San Francisco 49ers in 1966. In his five years there, he made the All Rookie Team and was an All Pro selection. Traded to the New England Patriots for a number one draft choice in 1971, he played another five years before retiring in 1976. It was that year that he returned to his native Washington, DC area and opened his immensely popular store in Laurel.

Excerpt from The Washington Post, October 21, 1976. Page E10

 

Growing up at Steward Manor Apartments just across Routes 198 and 197, I was fortunate to live within walking distance. And I took advantage of it, visiting early and often during those summer months. The store had everything a sports fan could want: jerseys, pennants, stickers, hats, jackets, lamps, trashcans—all licensed merchandise for seemingly every team in every pro sport. And this was on top of Bob’s outstanding selection of sneakers and other brand name sports apparel and equipment. He actually carried a better selection in this modest corner shop than many of today’s mammoth retailers, and he did it in an era when most of these items were only available through mail order catalogs.

Bob also cornered the market on local youth sports, silkscreening uniforms for Laurel High’s teams as well as those of the Laurel Boys & Girls Club and Maryland City Mustangs. (To this day, I still have my very first Mustangs jersey from 1980, and my Eisenhower Middle School gym t-shirt from 1984—both of which would now barely fit my dogs).

But as a kid growing up in Laurel, the best part really was Bob Windsor himself. At 6’4, he was already larger than life; tack on his genuine personality and good nature, and he was a legitimate role model—and something of a local celebrity to us all. In fact, for many kids from our neighborhood, the autographed 8 x 10 glossies that Bob happily gave out upon request were the first autographs we ever received. And, I’d be willing to bet I’m not the only one who still has mine. 🙂

 

 

 

Postscript: I’ve also tracked down some of Bob Windsor’s early team photos with the ‘Niners—a team that included a young Steve Spurrier at quarterback. Bob is #89, Spurrier is #11.

Tagged , , , , ,